The Common Good

Tony Jones: Three Choices in Pluralism

Last week, I caused a bit of a dust-up by wondering aloud about Mitt Romney's LDS faith, including an admittance of my own ignorance about particular practices and beliefs therein. It seems to me that Romney has been less that forthcoming about his commitment to LDS beliefs and practices, and he will be compelled, as the presidential race goes forward, to honestly confront those questions: Is he a "high priest" in the LDS church? Does he consider the words of Prophet Gordon Hinckley inspired and infallible? Private concerns these are not, particularly for a presidential candidate.

However, I'm more interested today in responding to the criticism of my last post. Faithful Progressive (FP) repeatedly castigated me for referring to the sacred undergarments worn by many Mormons, calling me everything from "bigoted" to "immature." While I am predisposed not to respond to anonymous criticism, I will make an exception in this case, for I think the difference between me and FP points out a major philosophical difference.

Call it globalization, postmodernism, or a "flat world," we live in a radically pluralized society, and it is only becoming more so. As the U.S. pluralizes, we become increasingly aware of the "otherness" of those around us. The Other looks, talks, and worships differently than I do. And, case in point, we've got a woman, an African-American, and a Mormon as leading contenders in a presidential race, a situation unthinkable just 50 years ago.

We face three choices when confronting our increasingly pluralized society. The first is the traditional conservative response, alternatively called ethnocentrism or fundamentalism. Proponents of this tactic build walls, both figuratively and literally, between themselves and the Other. Whether it be the attempt to move millions of evangelicals to South Carolina, or to found a Roman Catholic town in Florida, the desire to "conserve" a previous state of affairs leads to cultural withdrawal at its most innocent (see M. Night Shyamalan's movie, The Village, for a disturbing portrayal of retreatism), and to purgings and pogroms at its most dire (Fox TV's 24 is dealing with these pressures this season).

Just the opposite is the traditional liberal response to radical pluralism. FP and other liberals posit that we secularize. That is, he wants us to avoid talking about some of the very core practices and beliefs that differentiate us in an attempt to keep the peace. But arbitrary rules that attempt to avoid offense end up gutting the heart from real, robust conversations about the beliefs that many of us deeply hold and about the practices that guide our very lives. Sen. Obama, in his otherwise excellent speech to Sojourners last June, fell into this trap himself when he said, "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values." By my lights, the ecumenical and inter-faith movements of the 20th century were failures for just this reason: they endeavored to have lowest-common-denominator conversations, and thus talked about things that weren't of much interest to anyone.

The third, and I believe superior strategy for public conversation about religion, is the truly postmodern one: recognize the difference of the Other, even as you are robustly and distinctly yourself. To enter inter-religious dialogue, I've got to grow a thicker skin, for I need to be ready to answer penetrating, and even prickly questions about what I believe and how I practice it. I can neither be hypersensitive about what I'm asked, nor should I be expected to walk on eggshells when talking to others.

On the very day last week that I was receiving e-mails from FP demanding that I apologize to Mormons, I went to dinner with a bunch of friends. We all had black smudges on our foreheads, and we were compelled to describe to our waiter the increasingly foreign practice of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Likewise, I will unashamedly ask a Sikh man next to me on a plane why he ties his beard over his head and covers it in a turban, a Hindu woman why she wears a dot on her forehead, an orthodox Jew why he wears tassels, an old-order Mennonite woman why she covers her head, or a Mormon the reason for the sacred undergarments.

Over the past year, I've had the good fortune to make friends with some rabbis who gather under the auspices of Synagogue 3000. In our inter-faith dialogues, we have committed to speak candidly and frankly about what we believe, and not to shy away from asking each other difficult and pointed questions. We've endeavored to always give one another the benefit of the doubt, to think, "I assume he's asking that question out of love and a desire to understand me better," rather than, "I assume he is mocking my deeply held faith." This very assumption has led to some of the most enlightening conversation - and some of the most moving worship! - in which I have ever been involved.

Pluralism demands a new tack. Various "centrisms" are disastrous, and secularization is a dead end. The vast majority of human beings are deeply faithful, and as we come into closer contact with one another, we're sure to get bruised and even cut occasionally. But we need to grow thicker skins if we are going to live together in something approaching harmony and peace. Better understanding comes from asking the hard questions, not from placing some questions off-limits.


Tony Jones is the National Coordinator for Emergent Village.

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